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Scream therapy

Feel better after watching a scary movie? You’re not alone in the dark. Art by Wenzdai Figueroa.

The mental health benefits of horror movies

| THE INDEPENDENT | Monsters under the bed, zombies rising from the grave, and chainsaw-wielding maniacs aren’t exactly the first things that come to mind when one is trying to conjure soothing images.

Yet, for many horror movie aficionados, part of the draw of fright cinema is finding a certain degree of comfort nestled within the thrills and chills.

But, lest you raise an eyebrow at the notion of finding reprieve in the genre of blood-curdling screams, know that there’s not only validity to the idea… there’s precedent.

In an interview for the documentary “Fear in the Dark” (1991), acclaimed director Wes Craven (“A Nightmare on Elm Street“, “Scream”) famously stated that “horror films don’t create fear, they release it.”

Though succinct in delivery, Craven’s message nonetheless spoke to a layered truth: Our engagement with the things that frighten us can be its own form of catharsis.

More than just the embodiment of the time-honored chestnut of “facing your fears,” the contained adrenaline of a horror movie might actually be good for some viewer’s frame of mind.

Indeed, the beneficial qualities of fright flicks has become such an engaged topic of late, even the Mistress of the Dark herself, Elvira, got in on the action with a recent Netflix promo that cast her as fright therapist offering to “prescribe” horror movies for what might ail you.

Of course, part of the fun of digging into the discussion of horror’s beneficial nature is knowing that for a great number of years (and to many still), there were those in academia who saw no benefit to the genre at all.

“In the 30s, there was a lot of anxiety about what people consumed and whether it transformed them — especially children,” says Andrew Scahill, PhD, an assistant professor in the English department at the University of Colorado Denver and the author of “The Revolting Child in Horror Cinema.”

“There was a worry over what people get titillated by in the horror genre,” Scahill said. “Early criticism on film came from this place where horror cinema was seen as enabling sadism, essentially — that it gave flesh and body to fantasies that should not be reinforced.”

But as film continued to impact popular culture, scholars began to change their consideration over how it was received.

Building resilience scream by scream

Initially thought of as a passive activity, critics and academics took note of the fact that the film-going audience instead operated as active receptors to the material presented to them. Thus, their engagement with darker material might actually speak to a deeper need beyond surface titillation.

“Thinking about what (horror) offers us, how could that be in any way pleasurable? Why would we subject ourselves to negative affect? It seems counterintuitive to any evolutionary picture of humanity,” Scahill said. “Today, we have what we would call ‘surrogacy theory,’ which essentially says horror films allow us, in a way, to control our fear of death by giving us a surrogate experience.”

“Our body is telling us we’re in danger, but we know that we’re safe in these cushy theater seats,” Scahill added. “Allowing yourself to be triggered in a safe environment can actually be a process of therapy.”

According to Kurt Oaklee, MA, MFT, founder of Oaklee Psychotherapy in San Francisco, California, the audience’s surrogate experience with horror films is akin to the practice of exposure therapy, wherein a patient is presented with stressors in a controlled environment to reduce their impact over time.

“(Horror) can actually teach us how to handle real-world stress better,” Oaklee said. “During a stressful film, we are intentionally exposing ourselves to anxiety producing stimuli. We usually don’t engage in the same unhealthy coping mechanisms that we utilise in real life. We learn how to manage the stress in the moment. This practice can translate to helping us manage everyday stressors and fears.”

Admittedly, the concept of using horror films as a “contained trigger” to affect a form of release may just be one of the ways audiences are looking to horror films as a means of catharsis.

For marginalized individuals, horror’s active engagement with the concept of otherness may serve as a message of empowerment.

For others, horror’s ability to use metaphor and give tangible flesh and body to subconscious fears might allow those things to be conceptualised and compartmentalised.

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